Degel Menashe Project Director Clarifies Organization’s Stand on Aliyah
(July 29) In an editorial posted today on our Website, Project Director Yitzhak Thangjom spelled out Degel Menashe’s thinking about the Aliyah of the 5,000 B’nei Menashe still in northeast India while dismissing rumors that it plans to launch an Aliyah operation of its own.
The full text of his statement can be found on our Letters & Opinions page. “We are a young organization with a small budget, and bringing B’nei Menashe to Israel at our own expense is not on our agenda,” Thangjom stated in his editorial. What Degel Menashe wishes to do, he said, is to help change Israeli government policy regarding the Aliyah of the B’nei Menashe, which since 2003 has been outsourced to Shavei Israel, a private NGO
Declaring that Shavei had abused its monopoly on Aliyah from northeast India, Thangjom accused it of bringing too few immigrants over too long a time and of practicing discrimination in its choice of them. In the past 17 years, he said, an annual average of slightly more than 100 B’nei Menashe olim have reached Israel while thousands have remained in India, waiting in vain for their turn. Many of these thousands, Thangjom charged, were excluded from Aliyah lists because of their refusal to follow Shavei Israel’s dictates. The composition of these lists, until now decided on by Shavei alone, needs to be made transparent and subject to public oversight, he said.
Alternative ways for B’nei Menashe wishing to come to Israel must be found, the project director’s editorial stated, so that the community is no longer at the mercy of Shavei..One such way, it suggested, could be permission for B’nei Menashe to make Aliyah on their own, sponsored and assisted by their families in Israel.
Asked by our Newsletter whether there were in fact B’nei Menashe in India and Israel with the financial means to do this, Thangjom answered: “Of course there are. I can’t tell you exactly how many, but there must be quite a few. This wouldn’t solve the problem of all B’nei Menashe waiting for Aliyah, but it would certainly solve that of some. It would be a start in breaking Shavei Israels’s sole grip on the Aliyah process.”
Thangjom conceded that even before the era of Shavei, when the B’nei Menashe’s Aliyah had been administered by Rabbi Aliyahu Avichayil and his organization Amishav, it had been in non-governmental hands. “Still,” he observed, “there’s a a great difference. In Rabbi Avichayil’s time, there was a B’nei Menashe Council, which he consulted in drawing up Aliyah lists. The members of the BMC were democratically elected by a popular vote and served a set term. They performed their function well, if not perfectly, until 2003. There was a degree of transparency and accountability that ceased with Shavei’s taking over.”
Thangjom was asked what proof Degel Menashe had of the discriminatory Aliyah practices it accuses Shavei of following. He replied: “This discrimination started in 2003, when Shavei split the B’nei Menashe community,
which had until then prayed according to the Ashkenazi liturgy, by introducing the Sephardi one and blacklisting whoever did not adhere to it. Large numbers of people were affected. Whole congregations, like Petach Tikva in Buolzawl near Churachandpur, were kept off the Aliyah lists. No one has made Aliyah from Petach Tikva since 2002.
“When Degel Menache began its Covid-19 emergency food distribution program last spring,” Thangjom went on, “we discovered B’nei Menashe congregations, such as that of the village of Phalbung, which had been so thoroughly shunned by Shavei that hardly anyone knew of their existence. Numerous individuals have been denied consideration for Aliyah because they dared voice criticism of Shavei, or because they have not followed Shavei’s instructions on how and where to lead their lives.”
Shavei Israel’s monopoly, Thangjom said, made things easy for Israel’s government, which was why it has continued for so many years. “Shavei has worked closely with the Rabbinate,” he explained. “It gives the Rabbinate lists of B’nei Menashe olim whose Jewish observance and commitment it vouches for, and the Rabbinate trusts Shavei and approves these lists with no means of independently reviewing them. If B’nei Menashe were to bypass Shavei in coming to Israel, some other mechanism would have to be found. I’m sure that it could be.”
In his editorial, Thangjom speaks of “being in contact with official bodies” regarding the issue of B’nei Menashe Aliyah. Could he, our Newsletter inquired, tell us what these bodies were?
“I’m afraid it’s too early for that,” he answered. “These contacts are preliminary and we have no assurance that they will prove successful. We don’t want to arouse false expectations. We’re trying to change an entrenched bureaucratic process, and bureaucratic processes are notoriously difficult to change. But we do have justice and fairness on our side, and our hope is that they will prevail.”